Cover image for The English patient
The English patient
Ondaatje, Michael, 1943-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Everyman's Library, 2011.
Physical Description:
xxvii, 263 pages ; 21 cm.
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FICTION Adult Fiction Open Shelf

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Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning best seller lyrically portrays the convergence of four damaged lives in a bomb-riddled Italian villa in the last days of the war. Hana, the grieving nurse; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the emotionally detached Indian sapper, Kip--each is haunted in different ways by the riddle of the man they know only as the English patient, a nameless burn victim who lies swathed in bandages in an upstairs room. It is this man's incandescent memories--of the bleak North African desert, of explorers' caves and Bedouin tribesmen,
of forbidden love, and of annihilating anger--that illuminate the story, and the consequences of the mysteries they reveal radiate outward in shock waves that leave all the characters forever changed.

Author Notes

Michael Ondaatje was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on September 12, 1943. He moved to Canada in 1962 and became a Canadian citizen. He received a B.A. from the University of Toronto and a M.A. from Queen's University, Kingston, and taught English at York University. He has written several volumes of poetry, novels, and other works including There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do, The Dainty Monsters, Rat Jelly, Coming through Slaughter, Running in the Family, In the Skin of a Lion, Anil's Ghost, and The Cat's Table. His title, Warlight, made the bestseller list in 2018.

Ondaatje has won numerous awards including the Canadian Governor General's Award in 1971 for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and the Booker Prize in Fiction for The English Patient, which was adapted into a film in 1996.

(Bowker Author Biography) Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka. He now lives in Toronto.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

A man on fire parachutes from a burning plane, crash-landing in the Sahara. He is rescued by Bedouins who wrap him in oil and felt. World War II is winding to a miserable close, and eventually the man is brought to an Allied hospital set up in an old Italian villa. When the rest of the patients and staff leave for home, a young, half-mad Canadian nurse insists on staying behind with the unidentified burn victim. Hana's grief over the suffering of the wounded and her father's death have made her crave the ravaged beauty of the villa and the still company of this silent, pain-ridden man, but an old family friend tracks her down. A thief by nature, turned spy by the war, Caravaggio was captured and tortured. This trio of the wounded and haunted becomes a quartet when they are joined by Kirpal "Kip" Singh, a Sikh serving the British as a sapper, or mine-disarmer. Ondaatje slowly reveals the past of each of these battered survivors, evoking the subtleties of their psyches from the mysterious patient's deep knowledge of the desert to Kip's sixth sense for locating and neutralizing hidden bombs. This is a poetic and solemn narrative of the horrible process of war, the discipline, displacement, loss, and sudden, desperate love. Ondaatje seems to whisper, even confess each scene to his readers, handling them gingerly like shards of shattered glass. Yet another dazzler by this accomplished novelist and poet. ~--Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

A poet's sensitive, deep-seeing eye, a fluid, sensuous prose and imaginative juxtapositions of characters and events distinguish Canadian author Ondaatje's impressive novels ( Coming Through Slaughter ; In the Skin of a Lion ; etc.). Here again he brings together disparate characters whose lives intersect at a crucial moment in history, and introduces real-life figures who add dimension and credibility to the story. The four people who take shelter in an abandoned villa in Italy during the final days of WW II are in retreat from a world gone mad; each of them is bent on protecting painful memories and pondering irreplaceable losses. The mysterious ``English patient'' has been horribly burned while parachuting into the Libyan desert; his face unrecognizable and his identity unknown, he gradually reveals his tragic story through the prompting of David Caravaggio, a professional thief and former spy whose hands and spirit have been maimed by Nazi torturers. Caravaggio has come to the villa in search of Hana, a woman who is nursing the burned man, whom Caravaggio has known since her childhood in Toronto. Close to emotional breakdown herself, dry-souled Hana is nourished by her love for Kip, a Singh demolitions expert whose perilous craft reflects the fragility of all their lives. Each is ``playing a game of secrets,'' which Ondaatje reveals in a suspenseful narrative whose gripping scenes (a desert sandstorm; the defusing of live bombs) call to mind the sudden brilliance of subjects illuminated by Caravaggio's artist namesake, to whose work Ondaatje elliptically refers. If the events of the novel's closing pages seem forced, they underscore Ondaatje's message about the lingering effects of war's brutality. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In an Italian villa at the end of World War II, a young nurse cares for a soldier so horribly burned that he cannot be identified. Both patients and medical staff have decamped from this makeshift hospital, but Hana perseveres, worn out by the war and yet strangely linked to the dying man. Then a friend of her father arrives--a thief-turned-spy who recalls Hana as a young girl in Canada--and raises questions about ``the English patient,'' claiming that he is instead a Hungarian who spied for the Third Reich. Finally, they are joined by a young Sikh named Kip, a soldier with a nearby English battalion who defuses the bombs left behind by the Germans. The discovery of the patient's identity, Kip's successful defusion of several bombs, and the complex emotional interaction of all four characters creates a tension that is nicely heightened by Ondaatje's stately, luminous prose. The prose is so stately, in fact, that Kip's final outrage at the moral perfidy of the Western world he has served so loyally takes a moment to hit. When it does, the novel moves beyond the poetic to achieve moral stature. Highly recommended for literary collections.-- Barbara Hoffert, ``Library Journal'' (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill toward the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house. In the kitchen she doesn't pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door. She turns into the room which is another garden--this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling. The man lies on the bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly towards her as she enters. Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water onto him, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone. She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint. He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky. She pours calamine in stripes across his chest where he is less burned, where she can touch him. She loves the hollow below the lowest rib, its cliff of skin. Reaching his shoulders she blows cool air onto his neck, and he mutters. What? she asks, coming out of her concentration. He turns his dark face with its gray eyes towards her. She puts her hand into her pocket. She unskins the plum with her teeth, withdraws the stone and passes the flesh of the fruit into his mouth. He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died. From the Trade Paperback edition. Excerpted from The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.